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Unspeakable ethics, unnatural law


“I want to believe — and so do you — in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously.”

So wrote Yale Law School professor Arthur Leff at the beginning of his 1979 work, Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law, where he discussed our options for law and order, both with and without God. Leff begins by saying that all of us, deep down, want to be able to point to something that draws the line between good and bad, and quarantines off whatever’s bad from the rest of civil society.

That desire makes sense because law and order requires two things to be successful: 1. a standard that provides a measure of right and wrong; and 2. an authority to enforce the standard so it is effective. One without the other is a big swing-and-miss.

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The problem is that consensus on number one is pretty hard to come by these days, primarily due to the rabid desire for autonomy in just about everyone. This is why Leff immediately follows up his opening statement with: “I also want to believe — and so do you — in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be.”

Yep, there’s the rub.

Look at any country, anywhere, at any point in history and you see this play out in its cultural court of opinion all the time. Why? Because, as Leff says, “… whenever we set out to find “the law,” we are able to locate nothing more attractive, or more final, than ourselves.”

The problem is, we aren’t actually as attractive as we think we are. As God observed very early on, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Elsewhere in Jeremiah, you read the same thing: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).

This being the case, is it any wonder why you get National Guard troops being deployed to New York subways for safety reasons and teenagers beating their teachers unconscious because their Nintendo game is taken away from them?  

So, if we’re that scary bad, then it stands to reason that using our judgments as the final standard by which law is determined is a pretty chilling prospect. Leff puts it like this: “Given what we know about ourselves and each other…looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel.”

That should put some ice water down your back.

But that’s what you're left with if you have no transcendent source of objective moral values. It really is an ‘egads’ moment when you realize it’s not that whatever is is right, but that whatever is is as right as anything else that can be.

The disturbing thing is that many seem pretty darned comfortable with that. Further, should something challenge it, people are increasingly going the extra mile and stiff-arming not only the idea of God and His transcendent law but anything that comes close to resembling it.

For example, the United States Constitution.

Leff says, “As long as the Constitution is accepted, or at least not overthrown, it successfully functions as a God would in a valid ethical system: its restrictions and accommodations govern.”

And that’s a no-go for some these days. Not surprisingly, the number of people saying the Constitution has to go or at least be extensively rewritten to accommodate modern ideas is growing. For example, Donald Trump collected a lot of ire for suggesting the suspension of the Constitution during the 2020 election although some have debated if that’s what he meant.

In any event, be careful of what you ask for. As Leff insightfully notes, when you shake loose of God, you reach an exhilarated vertigo, a simultaneous combination of an exultant “We're free of God” and a despairing “Oh God, we're free.” It’s the naturalistic thinker’s version of damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t.

And damned you are because, as Leff notes, history has shown that “neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.”

Sadly, it seems so. 

This is why poet Steve Turner ends his poem “Creed,” which highlights the inevitable results of naturalistic-only moral thinking, by saying: “If chance be the Father of all flesh, disaster is his rainbow in the sky and when you hear State of Emergency! Sniper Kills Ten! Troops on Rampage! Whites go Looting! Bomb Blasts School! It is but the sound of man worshipping his maker.”

How much better it is to acknowledge our Creator who is the source of unchanging goodness and safety for His creation. If only we all could be wired to say with David, “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, because I have observed Your precepts. I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Your word” (Ps. 119:97–101).

One day that will materialize. But according to Scripture, it appears the world will have to go through Hell on earth first before it happens.  

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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